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Why do Indian-Americans dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US?

Filmmaker Sam Rega tracks four winners in his Netflix documentary Spelling the Dream to find the answer.

Written by Pallavi Chattopadhyay | New Delhi |
June 14, 2020 9:44:07 am
Sam Rega, Netflix documentary, Spelling the Dream, Spelling Bee in the US, Indian Express, Indian Express news New York-based director Sam Rega maps four competitors aged between 7 to 14 at the 2017 competition to understand how Indian-Americans have aced the competition for over a decade.

At seven, Akash Vukoti can effortlessly spell the word humuhumunukunukuapua’a. He remembers the consonants of Hawai’s state fish through a song. “You just say humu humu, then you say nuku nuku, and then you say apua ah and then you finish the whole thing,” he says in the recently released Netflix documentary Spelling the Dream. New York-based director Sam Rega follows Vukoti’s journey to the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee contest, where he was the first, first grader to qualify. Rega maps four competitors aged between 7 to 14 at the 2017 competition to understand how Indian-Americans have aced the competition for over a decade. The film shows how 26 of the last 31 winners in the prestigious US competition have been of Indian origin.

It was in 2015 when Rega’s colleague Chris Weller, an avid follower of the national championship and also the producer of the film, told him about this intriguing trend. “At that time there were just eight winners in a row but he noticed it was growing year after year and when he told me there is something going on here, and we have a trend brewing, that I realised not much had been written or documented about this. That was a jump off for us on whether we could tell this as a documentary,” says Rega. Interestingly, seven of the eight co-winners of the 2019 competition that ended up in a tie were Indian-origin students, who took home a cash prize of $50,000 after competing with over 550 spellers. This is the third offering by 34-year-old Rega, who followed few of the top professional video gamers of the world in his 2016 film, League of Millions, and examined the events that led to the suicide of Miami City Commissioner Arthur E Telle in his 2008 documentary Miami Noir: The Arthur E Teele Story.

Spelling the Dream lays out the road map for the possible reasons that have contributed to this triumphant journey of Indian-American students. Balu Natarajan, the first Indian-American winner at the 1985 national competition, kickstarted the spelling bee tradition. It made headlines in local newspapers which read: “Son of immigrants wins Scripps National Spelling Bee”. The impetus for the winning streak, as shown in the film, can be traced back to 1965, when the 36th US President Lyndon B Johnson brought in a change in immigration laws, which caused a demographic change in the country. Many Indian doctors could migrate because of this, and were willing to work in rural areas. Rega says, “We were getting people who were educated. With those degrees, they came to the US and began to instil that in their children, generation after generation. It was something like, ‘It is what led to my personal success so I am going to impart that to my children’.”

With Natarajan’s win, many Indians too were inspired. It only grew stronger after ESPN started airing the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1994. “Those were moments where Indian-Americans at home, who were either reading the newspapers and watching it on TV, started saying, ‘Oh, if they can do it, I can do it’,” says Rega. Besides, many of these children also knew multiple languages, apart from English, which gave them a knack for spellings. There’s a confident 14-year-old Shourav Dasari from Texas — whose engineer parents migrated from Andhra Pradesh to the US — revealing his family secret of a spreadsheet on his computer that contains 1,25,000 words. The family decided to disclose it after nearing the final year of the competition. When competing in the final rounds of Scripps in 2017, he is famous for giving one of the greatest moments in the spelling bee’s history by spelling ‘mogollon’ impressively within five seconds and returning to his seat, smiling, even before the judges could announce he is right.

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The spellers spend close to two to four hours daily in practise and nearly 10 hours days before the competition, where they master between 60,000 to 1,00,000 words from the dictionary. It turns into a family event with parents studying with the spellers, siblings helping and all attending the competition together. One of the moving scenes in the documentary is when Vukoti ends up in tears after failing one of the qualifying rounds, and he runs to his father immediately after the announcement. His parents believe that the competition is more about gaining knowledge than winning. The heartbreak lasts for a small brief time before the child is seen having a joyous time playing around and giggling with his elder sister in the garden. Rega believes that the growing up years of these children is no different from those playing basketball or tennis or learning a musical instrument. “It has to be put into perspective of any child who has a passion that he/she is working towards an end goal and doing it year after year. They are putting in their time, dedicating themselves and trying to learn their craft even more, and trying to excel at it. Scripps National Spelling Bee is where one gets to see them at the height of their careers,” he says.

Nupur Lala, a 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, emerged a winner after correctly spelling the word ‘logorrhoea’ at the competition when she was 14. In the film, she recalls her win over 20 years ago, when her bespectacled self would head home after school and do her homework, rather than hang out with friends. She reveals how she had never been in settings where she didn’t feel different, having grown up in North Carolina before moving to Florida, because of her name and looks. The competition is where she found solace, a sense of comfort and belonging after seeing the finalists at the competition from 1997, a majority of whom were Indians, and she soon realised this was an area she could be successful in. In the film, she says, “This is the first time in my life when I didn’t feel extremely different.” The takeaway from these competitions has been manifold. Tejas Muthuswamy, a four-time Scripps National Spelling Bee participant, has learnt important lessons about confidence on stage and hard work after spending hours in its preparation. Dasari has gone further to set up an online startup called SpellPundit that helps spelling bee hopefuls to master the craft of learning words swiftly.

Even as Ananya Vinay emerged as the winner, the final scenes of Spelling the Dream are a reminder of the prevailing climate in the US, as screenshots show how many of these winners are subjected to xenophobic comments on social media. “It’s terrible that it is directed towards children,” says Rega, adding, “The underlying tone of the film is to show that we are all in this together. We are all Americans. All of these children are Americans, they are part of the American dream, their families got here because of what our country allows. No one did anything that was beyond what they were given as a country. That was so beautiful about our country and that is what people should remember.”

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